ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #8, Timmy Jernigan

Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan is #8 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan is #8 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

It’s finally game week! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 8, Timmy Jernigan, DT/Florida State (Last Season: NR)

Due to the tremendous amount of depth on Florida State’s defense, Timmy Jernigan wasn’t even a starter last season. And yet, even playing inconsistent minutes, the now-junior still managed an impressive 45 tackles — including eight TFLs and 1.5 sacks. Where Jernigan’s strength lies is a mix between his lower center of gravity (6’2″ isn’t short by any means, but compared to many of FSU’s other linemen, it’s shorter) and his massive 294-pound weight. Even in his limited playing time last year, he managed to literally throw that weight around, overpowering his blockers while giving the team a fresh set of legs off the bench. Now as the team’s starting defensive tackle, can he consistently produce at the same level, though?

That may actually depend on some of his cohorts. With all of last year’s starters gone, that protection automatically vanishes, plus there’s the concern for what happens without elite pass-rushers like Tank Carradine and Bjoern Werner, both now in the NFL. Of course, Mario Edwards is no slouch, and for what it’s worth, I see him as a potential breakout star this season. But now that he’s the biggest name of all on the line, that turns Jernigan into the focus of every gameplan. It’s an honor, obviously, and the type of hype most players dream of. However, it’s also a burden, and if there’s anything that could possibly slow Jernigan down this year, that’s likely it.

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ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #9, Aaron Donald

Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald is #9 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald is #9 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

It’s finally game week! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 9, Aaron Donald, DT/Pittsburgh (Last Season: 25)

Our Pittsburgh preview just went up yesterday, but it bears repeating: the defense is what will guide the Panthers this season. And when you’re talking about the Pitt defense, you’re obviously talking about Aaron Donald. The senior defensive tackle has proven himself to be an absolute force on the line, tallying 24.5 TFLs over the past two seasons and 16.5 sacks as well. Those are the type of numbers you see from first-round draft picks, and crazy enough, he could still improve. Donald has alternated between a pass-rushing force (sophomore year) and a run-stopping force (junior year). So if he can put those two elements together, Panthers fans might just witness a very special season.

Unfortunately, Pitt might require that type of special season if they hope to get themselves back to the postseason. While the defensive line is sure to be the team’s strength, they also have fallen short as a group, notching just 24 sacks last season. Donald has been a huge part of the overall production, but as we saw last year, they might need more. At about 6’0″ and 285 pounds, he’s got the size required to be an elite defensive tackle. With a 4.9-second(ish) 40-yard dash, he’s at or around an average player at the position. But which will he trend more toward this season; elite or average? Benefiting from a veteran defense, I’m tempted to say the former.

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ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #10, Jerome Smith

Syracuse’s Jerome Smith is #10 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Syracuse’s Jerome Smith is #10 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

It’s finally game week! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 10, Jerome Smith, RB/Syracuse (Last Season: NR)

Halfway through last season, Syracuse and its pass-happy offense was 2-4 and struggling to move the ball. The running game had grown stale — though without getting a ton of carries, it was hard for the backs to actually get in the rhythm of the game. Things would change course mid-year though, as a balanced attack led SU to a 6-1 record the rest of the way. And while he wasn’t the only ball-carrier (far from it), starter Jerome Smith was at the center of it all. After amassing just 355 yards over the first six games, he had 816 over the final seven, proving himself to be a primary back, fully capable of carrying the load for this offense. He also racked up the Orange’s fifth straight 1,000-yard rushing season, entering him into an already elite fraternity and knocking on the door for much more in the team’s history books.

With much of last year’s passing game gone, the Syracuse attack will be taking on a very different look this season (or so it’s thought), likely running the ball at a much higher rate. Smith is the catalyst behind that strategy, as the 6’0″ 217-pound back mixes between-the-tackles running with home run abilities to keep defenses on their feet. Mixed with Prince-Tyson Gulley, who’s quicker and runs along the edge, you’ve got a perfect mixture of “thunder and lightning” the likes of which are difficult to fully prepare for. The two-back system already has folks excited this year — primarily offensive coordinator George McDonald, who’s regularly gushed to the media about the backfield’s abilities multiple times.

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ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #11, James Hurst

North Carolina’s James Hurst is #11 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

North Carolina’s James Hurst is #11 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

It’s finally game week! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 11, James Hurst, OT/North Carolina (Last Season: NR)

Last year’s North Carolina offense prided itself on a strong line most of all. It was the reason Bryn Renner took so few sacks, and the reason Giovani Bernard was able to put together the impressive campaign he did at running back. So it’s understandable that there’s some concern this season when the team no longer has Jonathan Cooper operating at the guard spot, along with fellow linemen Travis Bond and Brennan Williams. But that doesn’t mean this team’s suddenly vulnerable either. It’ll be no easy task to replace those players, but starting with James Hurst, there’s hope the Heels see very little drop-off this year. Just one look at Hurst and you’ll get why.

At 6’7″ and 305 pounds, Hurst is a looming individual; one of the biggest linemen UNC has, actually. And now as a senior, his leadership must loom over his teammates as well. Hurst is already under a ton of pressure at tackle, and it’s been made a bit more nerve-racking by the man he’ll be blocking in the first game this season: South Carolina‘s Jadeveon Clowney. He gets the hype and importance, of course. But Hurst is also taking everything in stride — almost sounding calm about the prospect of the matchup in a conversation with the Charlotte Observer:

“There’s a lot riding on you. They’re going to look at that game film, and (ask) how did he play against him? But on the other side of the coin, it is one game of the year, and it is the first game of the year. So there’s a lot on it, but at the same time you’ve got to take a little off of it because you know it’s the whole season that matters. But to me, it is the first game, and at that point it’s the only game I’ve played.”

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ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #12, James Gayle

Virginia Tech’s James Gayle is #12 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Virginia Tech’s James Gayle is #12 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

It’s finally game week! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 12, James Gayle, DE/Virginia Tech (Last Season: NR)

The talk about the Virginia Tech defense these past couple years (and this season as well) is that it’s a full team effort — no individual member of the unit is necessarily elite, but together, they’re a very formidable group. It’s certainly true, but that also overlooks just how many playmakers the Hokies have. Tops among them is James Gayle, the team’s senior defensive end who’s made a living out of getting through the line since he arrived on campus. If Tech is going to get back to being a top-10 unit again, it’s going to be on the back of a solid pass rush, and that means Gayle will be leading the charge.

Last season’s Hokies tallied an impressive 35 sacks, five of which were by Gayle, which undersells his importance. Getting doubled every game, he was still able to make 11 tackles for a loss, but most importantly, he was able to draw blockers away from his teammates. So when you see the high team sack number, there’s plenty of praise to be tossed at the senior, despite the seemingly lower figure next to his name. Virginia Tech hasn’t had many players put up a monster amount of sacks from the defensive end spot of late, but that team approach is probably the biggest reason of all. If there’s any DE they’ve had lately who seems poised to really break out nationally though, perhaps it really is Gayle.

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ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #13, Alex Amidon

Boston College’s Alex Amidon is #13 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Boston College’s Alex Amidon is #13 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

It’s finally game week! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 13, Alex Amidon, WR/Boston College (Last Season: NR)

Boston College’s offense struggled overall last season. But in the passing game, the team actually wasn’t terrible — in fact, they averaged nearly 259 yards per game through the air. Now, part of that was due to a flawed, pass-first attack, of course. Though that really takes away from the man behind it all: Alex Amidon. Of BC’s 256 completed passes in 2012, Amidon caught 78 of them. His seven passing touchdowns came close to half of the team’s total of 18, and at 1,210 receiving yards, he made up nearly 40 percent of the team’s total. Since the rushing game may as well have not existed, it’s easy to see that Amidon is the engine that drives the unit’s entire production, which is how he ends up this high on the list.

Going into last season, Amidon was an unknown commodity. Through his first two seasons, he’d only caught 36 passes and there were plenty of doubts about how he’d handle an increased workload. And then in the first game of last year, he exploded for 10 catches and 149 yards against Miami. Yet it was all just a preview for what was to come. Amidon was third in the ACC in catches per game, second in receiving yards per game and sixth in receiving scores. Despite a minimal amount of postseason honors tossed his way, he was among the top pass-catchers in the conference last season and again — the primary reason Boston College even managed to win the two games they did. Now as a senior, he’s due for another surprising season, despite being largely ignored by the press and coaches once again.

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ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #14, Eric Ebron

North Carolina’s Eric Ebron is #14 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

North Carolina’s Eric Ebron is #14 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Less than one week until college football kicks off! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 14, Eric Ebron, TE/North Carolina (Last Season: NR)

In a quick-release offense, a tight end can be among the most important players on the field, and that’s certainly true when it comes to Eric Ebron and UNC. Now a junior, the huge (6’4″ and around 250 pounds) tight end is being hyped at one of the best in the country at his position. And why not? He’s built like a tank and can keep pace with most wideouts. Whether he’s up against linebackers or defensive backs, there are mismatches galore all over the field, and there are few tight ends built to exploit them like he can.

Ebron also appears to have the mental makeup to succeed at this level and beyond, despite some bumps in the road as a freshman. In a recent feature with Fox Sports Carolinas, Lauren Brownlow was able to get inside Ebron’s head and what she found was an intriguing character — focused, but introverted; humble, but still keeping some lofty goals in mind. North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora’s put up 12 touchdowns as a goal for Ebron, and instead of shying away from it, he’s set his own goal of 15. But his top priority is simply improvement, and unexamined improvement at that. As he told Brownlow:

“I’d rather live my life in the dark and improve without people telling me I’m improving or telling me I’m this or telling me I’m that. I’d rather see it for myself or hear it from the people that actually matter… You get tired of everyone telling you what you are. … I don’t like to listen to All-ACC this and All-American that. I’d like to go out and prove it instead of having it all come to me.”